Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, Sep 5th 2016
The Asterisk War
Novel 1 - Encounter with a Fiery Princess
On the extraterritorial island of Rikka, also known as Asterisk for its shape, students known as genestella gather at schools to hone the powers they gained from being born after a mysterious meteor shower. Every year, these students compete in the Festa, a three-part battle designed to show off their skills and bring in money from corporations that have become more powerful than nations in this new world order. Ayato Amagiri has just transferred to Seidoukan Academy on the Asterisk, and an encounter with Julis-Alexia von Riessfeld, the daughter of a figurehead monarchy, immediately throws him into the strange competitive world of the Festa. But Ayato is anything but normal, with his own mysterious reasons for being at Seidoukan. Can he and Julis team up to solve both of their problems?
I suspect that I'm not the only one who is sick of tsunderes, those characters who appear to be prickly and harsh on the outside but have warm, gooey, emotional centers. So it was a pleasant surprise to discover that not only is the original novel version of Yuu Miyazaki's The Asterisk War not just a cookie-cutter harem, but its heroine, Princess Julis-Alexia von Riessfeld, is not nearly as much of a stereotypical tsundere as adaptations of the story make her out to be. In fact, that's one of this first novel's greatest strengths – care is taken to make both of the primary protagonists more complex characters rather than rehashed caricatures.
Subtitled “Encounter with a Fiery Princess,” this story follows high school student Ayato Amagiri as he transfers mid-year to Seidoukan Academy, one of six schools on the extraterritorial island officially known as Rikka but more commonly called Asterisk. Following a strange meteor shower that introduced a new element to Earth, children have been born able to wield the power of “mana,” with stronger physical attributes than humanity previously possessed. These people, known as “genestella” (with mana users called either “Strega” or “Dante” depending upon their gender), are specially trained at the schools on Asterisk, with the strong implication that they are also being monetized by the corporations that rose to power in the vacuum left by the meteor showers. There's a definite shady quality to these corporations, with the implication that the well-being of the genestellae is not one of their primary concerns. Ayato is a genestella but does not seem to be a Dante, while Julis is a Strega, but events late in the novel provide hints that Ayato may have depths hidden even from himself, making for an intriguing jumping-off point for the rest of the series. It's also interesting that there doesn't appear to be a difference in rank or value between magic users and normies; all genestellae are equally judged solely by their strength, not how they acquire it. That sets this series apart from its many similar “magic battle high school” stories, although its striking similarities to Chivalry of a Failed Knight, whose anime aired in the same season as Asterisk War's, could give you some unsettling déjà vu.
Anyway, Julis is one of the best parts of this book. While she does overreact in typical fashion to circumstances beyond Ayato's control – like him accidentally seeing her in her underwear – she's also written with enough personality that this initial cliché quirk does not define her character. When Ayato explains that he was simply trying to return a handkerchief that was clearly important to her, she calms down but also feels backed into a corner by her previous reaction. This is typical of Julis throughout the volume; she has a habit of cutting off her nose to spite her face, rather than actually being bothered by Ayato's accidental infringements on her privacy. It seems that Julis's later awkwardness around Ayato, who she quickly comes to like, is more due to discomfort with her initial reaction to him than a desire to hide her warm and fuzzy feelings. There's also the contrast with her status as a princess and a “Page One” (powerful student) compared to his relative unknown position as a commoner. Basically, she seems to be at war with herself over whether she should have feelings for him than in denial of those feelings. This becomes even more clear when she says that she'd rather his childhood friend Saya (who is much more stereotypical) stay behind when she takes him around town.
Ayato himself is more bland, but that seems to be in part because of something from his past that creates a disconnect between who he is now and who he initially wanted to be. We can see this not only in the reveal near the end of the book, but also in his strangely detached search for his older sister – he's clearly come to Seidoukan to find out about her disappearance, but he's emotionally disconnected from what he's doing, at least as far as he's aware. The intensity with which he asks questions about her belies his seeming disinterest, suggesting that he's been somehow “set” to try not to find her, even as something in him can't help but dig deeper.
Miyazaki's writing is smoother than the average light novel, with a better story flow along with more care taken to flesh Julis and Ayato out beyond the basic harem lead standard. The book still demonstrates the typical pitfalls of its style, mostly seen in the battle system and the characters of Saya, Claudia, and Lester, but the third-person narration shifts character perspectives easily and the lack of jargon is very nice, with a small glossary in the back to keep terms straight instead, such as you might find in a YA fantasy novel. Chapters are also shorter than we usually see in light novels, making this a very easy read. There are roughly two full-page illustrations per chapter, and okiura's art is pleasant although markedly better with girls than boys. Claudia is drawn as buxom but not ludicrously so, which is a nice change, and where Julis looked like she had forgotten to put on a skirt in the manga version, she simply appears to be wearing a short dress in the original illustrations. Faces don't always fit on bodies, but the illustrations fill a minor enough role to be less of an issue.
The first novel of The Asterisk War's original light novel series is a fun read, with characters who deviate from the norm just enough to keep things interesting, while still maintaining enough ties to its popular genre to please fans. This is an easy read that doesn't make many demands of you, making it the kind of novel you pick up on a trip or when you just need a few hours away from reality.
Overall : B-
Story : B-
Art : C+
+ Main characters are more than simple stereotypes, writing and translation are smooth and easy to read, some interesting backstory implications
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